What is your IT strategy? Many contractors don’t have one. As a result, their computer systems are a patchwork of disjointed and often outdated applications, operating systems and hardware. This scenario limits the productivity and communication benefits of information technology (IT) and heightens data security risks.
To build a solid IT infrastructure, you first must determine what you want to accomplish. Begin by defining your most important short- and long-term business goals, and determine which technology initiatives will help you reach those goals. Think two, three or even five years down the road to ensure the money you invest in technology will benefit your company.
Keep in mind that developing a strategy doesn’t have to be an exhaustive process. The most important step is to identify the areas where IT investment will deliver the largest or quickest return for your company. Do you want to increase productivity in the field? Are you looking for ways to improve your cash flow? Perhaps compliance is at the top of your risk-reduction initiatives. Knowing what your firm needs today and in the future will guide the development of your infrastructure.
Design a Holistic System
Unless your construction company is new, you already have an IT infrastructure in place. Scott Lewis, president and CEO of Winning Technologies, has helped hundreds of construction companies design and implement IT systems. To strengthen a system, he suggests first conducting an audit that identifies your infrastructure’s weaknesses. He also recommends talking with employees about how current systems are working at their level and what improvements would help them do their jobs more effectively.
Once the audit is complete, you are ready to design your new or updated infrastructure. “The most stable IT platforms are those engineered so that everything works together,” Lewis says.
Software, for example, won’t work as well with certain hardware configurations. Even networks can be slowed down just by adding a slower switch. “If the infrastructure design doesn’t take all components into account, you’re probably not going to be satisfied with the results.”
One major infrastructure component is software. Many companies use only a small portion of the capabilities their current software offers. Before purchasing new software, check to see if your current application can address your needs or if an easy and cost-effective add-on is available.
If you do purchase new software, always keep in mind how it will work with other applications you have or plan to purchase in the future. Integration is key to easily exchanging information between your employees and other companies.
Several leading construction software vendors have joined forces as members of the Construction Open Software Alliance (COSA) in order to improve integration between different software programs. While certain integration may not be available today, consider how a software vendor’s data exchange plans will affect your own IT structure.
In addition to software, your IT infrastructure design should take into consideration how data, operating systems, servers and other computing elements will be handled. Many contractors maintain their entire IT system on premise in their office. As information technology becomes even more complex, however, a growing number of construction companies are looking at other alternatives to lessen the IT management burden.
One alternative is Software as a Service (SaaS) applications, which allow access to information from any Web-enabled desktop, laptop or mobile device. SaaS applications are fully hosted by the software provider or cloud services provider so you don’t have to install any software, troubleshoot problems or download upgrades or enhancements. Some SaaS applications also will connect with your existing on-premise software.
Another alternative is outsourcing services, which helps you off-load part or all of your IT responsibilities. A basic service will host and manage your computer storage, hardware, servers and networking components. On the other end of the spectrum, some outsourcing companies will manage your entire IT environment. When working with an IT outsourcing service, make sure you thoroughly understand the services they offer and what you will be responsible for.
Using SaaS or IT outsourcing can improve significantly the technical capabilities of your company. Just as you would with any other business partner, examine the service provider’s qualifications, security processes and references.
Extend IT to the Field
No construction IT infrastructure is complete without a connection to the field. That connection no longer should be limited to the jobsite trailer or a Web-enabled laptop. Handheld mobile devices are now commonplace on the jobsite and provide the ability to access, share and submit information more conveniently.
In a recent construction IT survey conducted by Sage, 47 percent of contractors provide company-owned mobile devices to employees. Another 49 percent allow their staff to bring their own devices for work purposes (BYOD). While BYOD has many benefits, it also requires special considerations when designing your infrastructure. “You never know what type of device your employees will show up with,” Lewis says.
To solve this issue, Lewis suggests implementing a virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI), which allows employees the flexibility to work anywhere by accessing data from a range of different devices. VDI is a remote desktop service that allows employees to use any hardware device (even if it is personally owned) to securely access company information and applications from anywhere.
Mobile device management (MDM) is another technology that companies are using to better manage mobile devices. MDM is especially useful in BYOD environments because it separates and secures corporate data from an employee’s personal information. The technology can be used to lock or delete data remotely when a device is lost or stolen, manage the use of company-approved applications, fix common user problems, and execute other mobile administrative and security tasks.
Keep Data Secure
IT security is a commitment every construction company should make. Among the chief concerns are application and system attacks, data leaks and security breaches.
When developing a solid IT infrastructure, consider the following critical questions to ask yourself and your IT service providers.
- Do you have reliable security policies and procedures in place?
- Are regular security audits conducted by